I kind of want a Kindle . Note to wife and kids: I'm not hinting around for Father's Day. Another set of Rumpole DVDs would be perfect. If I'm ever going to own a Kindle, I'll wait for the day they've come down in price to the point that I can treat it like a book and not an expensive toy and if I leave it on the subway or drop it in a puddle or spill a soda all over it I'll think, Gosh, that's too bad, guess I'll just have to buy another copy.
But a Kindle would come in handy when I travel. Even for a short trip I'll throw three or four or even five books in my suitcase because I never know what I'll be in the mood to read when I get where I'm going and I want to be prepared. And there have been many nights when I'm up late and suddenly get the urge to read a particular book or a work by a particular author and no one's ever answered my knock at the library door at midnight. The local Barnes and Noble locks up at eleven. The only places to buy books in the pre-dawn hours are one aisle over from the greeting cards at Price-Chopper or that place by the airport that just driving by it in the middle of the day makes me want to go home and take a shower. It would have been cool the other night if I could have downloaded the book I had a hankering to read, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume.
Insomnia makes me a little crazy.
Funny thing, though. These middle of the night fits of desire to edumacate meself never seem to carry over into the daylight and send me rushing out to the library or the bookstore first thing in the morning to be there when they open their doors.
If I had a Kindle it would fill up fast with a lot of books downloaded at one in the morning that were totally forgotten by two.
And here's another thing.
The day might come when I can treat a Kindle like a book, but the day will never come when a Kindle treats me the way a book does.
Each and every book is unique and each treats you differently when you read them. I don't mean that the effect on your brain, on your heart, on your soul is different, although that's the case. I mean that impression they leave is as physical and individual as that of a person or a dog or a tree or a rain shower. Reading a book is a sensual as well as an intellectual adventure. Obviously books look different. They have different covers, different typefaces. We take in at a glance that they come in different sizes and even in slightly different shapes. But we feel all that and other differences too. Books have weight. They have smells. They have sounds. We can hear the differences between them. Each book makes its own sound when it's opened---that cracking of the glue in the spine, a faint whisper of trapped air being released---and when it's slapped shut. It sounds like itself when it slides off the shelf or is dropped on the floor or tossed onto a bed. The sound of its pages turning is its voice. Our nose knows the difference too. Books smell. The glue smells, the ink smells, the paper smells. And in the dark we can tell the difference between two books on the nightstand just by picking them up and feeling the heft and shape in our hand.
Even two mass market paperback editions of the same book will feel different, particularly if one has been read and the other's brand-new.
But a Kindle is always itself. No matter how creative publishers get with the interfaces, the Kindle will still feel like a Kindle, and that feeling will be the same as the feeling we get when we handle a calculator. Next to nothing. They are pretty much soundless, smell-less, weightless. Holding one in your hand is a repetitive act. When you pick one up to read, your hand and fingers shape themselves tonight the way the did last night, the way they will tomorrow, and while the turning of actual pages doesn't seem like it counts much in the way of work, it's far more intelligent and stimulating than pushing a button or running a finger over a glass screen. It's intelligent because it gathers intelligence. People think with their senses, the brain is just the command and storage center. Our hands are probably the smartest things about us, much more reliable than our eyes. Language made us human. Opposable thumbs made us sapient.
Books make us smarter just by making us handle them.
Reading creates motion and sensation. It stimulates. A reader with a stack of books on the couch next to her or on her desk in the library or on the table in front of her at Barnes and Noble goes through a marvelous and intricate sensual dance just setting down one book and picking up another.
If she's reading on a Kindle she could switch between five or six books without you noticing her move or hearing a thing and she'll never have to worry about spilling her coffee or knocking over her stack of books in the process.
Barnes and Noble. The library.
Here's something else important about the difference between reading a regular paper and glue book and reading it on a Kindle.
You have to go get that paper book from somewhere.
And from someone.
Reading a book is a social and socializing act. Reading a book requires a trip to the fair.
I'll explain, but I have to take the long way around.
I'm sure you all know about the AIG exec who rather than return his bonus quit his job via a snotty and self-righteous op-ed in the Times. Some people have sympathized with the guy or at least made a stab at understanding where he was coming from. He'd worked hard. He said. He was good at his job. He said. He was honest. He said. And even though he worked in the division that sank AIG he had no idea that all that fraud and stupidity and reckless indifference to facts and likely consequences was going on.
Matt Tiabbi answered his points, one by one.
But even if all his claims about himself aren't bullshit, they are claims about himself. He himself is his only object of concern. He shows no sign that he understands that his job was playing not just with other people's money but with their lives.
People lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their life savings because of things AIG and the other big Wall Street casinos did. It doesn't matter that he was personally honest and competent, he was still part of it. In fact, his honesty and competence contributed to the disasters, because he helped keep that division, and AIG, going while the mess was being made. The mess was bigger, the harm was greater, because he gave his incompetent and dishonest colleagues cover and time to continue making messes and doing harm.
It doesn't matter if he didn't know what was going on at the time. He knows it now. And it should bother him. He should feel guilty, even if the actual blame doesn't fall on him. It should bother him that he's pocketing millions of dollars while the people who were screwed by his fellow wheelers and dealers are wondering if they're going to have enough money to buy groceries next week.
But I get no sense that he has a sense that other people besides himself were screwed or that they even exist to be screwed.
Now, maybe he's just one of the legions of sociopaths who are attracted to jobs that promise money and power. Maybe the culture of the financial world has become sociopathic and he, good soul that he once was, has been infected.
But I think the word might be too harsh. It might be that he's not anti-social, he's just been de-socialized. His problem isn't that he's a sociopath. He's alienated. Alienated in just that way sociologists and novelists in the 1950s warned that people who are cooped up in offices all day and caged in suburban split-levels all the rest of the time become alienated.
Cut off from the outside world with all its sensual stimulation, surrounded by a relatively small-set of like-minded co-workers, an individual can start to lose track of the fact that there is a world outside his own skin, that there are people different from himself with needs and desires that don't match his own.
The way the world works these days requires that millions of people remove themselves from it for hours and hours at a time, spending their days in what are essentially halls of mirrors, wrapped up in their own thoughts, focused on their own needs and wants and desires, when they aren't wrapped up in the abstractions called corporations they work for. It's no wonder they grow a little heartless. It's no wonder they go a little mad.
People need to mix and mingle with all sorts and conditions. We need to bump into each other, step on each other's toes, get in each other's ways, and then we need to laugh it off, apologize, do that little side to side dance people who nearly collide on the sidewalk do trying to let the other person pass. We need it to reminded that there are other people out there, outside ourselves, and they're not going where we're going, looking where we're looking, thinking what we're thinking. It forces us to sympathize. Not just with other people though. With ourselves. I don't mean in the sense of self-pity. I mean in the sense of developing self-knowledge.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
To quote one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite poets. The poem, by the way, is called To a Louse, and goes on:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us...
Seeing ourselves as others see us means seeing ourselves as selves, as distinct from them, and it does free us from many a blunder and foolish notion and cause us to leave off airs in dress and action by reminding us that what look like blunders and foolish notions in others aren't at all foolish to them and vice versa.
What we need is to get out and go to the fair.
Speaking of Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln loved books and reading. Obviously. I think he'd have enjoyed having a Kindle, growing up out there on the frontier where there weren't libraries and bookstores. There are still towns and places, even in the United States, where Kindles would be a godsend to curious and intellectually minded children...adults, too. But you know what else Lincoln loved?
Fairs are fun but they were more than fun for him. They were the best places to go to get that power from the giftie and see ourselves as others see us by being forced to see them as they see themselves.
Agricultural fairs are becoming an institution of the country. They are useful in more ways than one. They bring us together, and thereby make us better acquainted and better friends than we otherwise would be. From the first appearance of man upon the earth down to very recent times, the words, "stranger" and "enemy" were quite or almost synonymous. Long after civilized nations had defined robbery and murder as high crimes, and had affixed severe punishments to them, when practiced among and upon their own people respectively, it was deemed no offense, but even meritorious, to rob and murder and enslave strangers, whether as nations or as individuals. Even yet, this has not totally disappeared. The man of the highest moral cultivation, in spite of all which abstract principle can do, likes him whom he does know. To correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy and from positive enmity among strangers, as nations or as individuals, is one of the highest functions of civilization. To this end our agricultural fairs contribute in no small degree. They render more pleasant, and more strong and more durable the bond of social and political union among us. Again, if, as Pope declares, "happiness is our being's end and aim," our fairs contribute much to that end and aim, as occasions of recreation, as holidays. Constituted as man is, he has positive need of occasional recreation, and whatever can give him this associated with virtue and advantage, and free from vice and disadvantage, is a positive good. Such recreation our fairs afford. They are a present pleasure, to be followed by no pain as a consequence: they are a present pleasure, making the future more pleasant.
That's from an Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, September 30, 1859. Italics mine.
Fred Kaplan in what is becoming one of my favorite books on Lincoln, called simply Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer , elaborates a bit:
Like other socializing devices, from local markets to national legislatures, from language to law, from psychology to philosophy, state fairs exist, he proposed, to help make strangers into neighbors, to create sympathy between regions and nations, and, by inference, between North and South. They help transform tribal loyalty into identification with all things human...
...True happiness, Lincoln implies, resides in being in consonance with the values that fairs promote, and happiness can best be construed philosophically as promoting the values and processes of civilization, one of whose "highest functions" is to eliminate enmity and promote sympathy "among strangers, as nations, or as individuals." Self-interest at its most enlightened, he argued, is always other interest as well.
Again, my italics.
One of the things I miss about living in Syracuse is going to the State Fair every August. You can learn a lot at the State Fair. Somewhere in my head I have the exact number of dairy farms there were in New York State in 2003, the last time I was at the Fair, and the total tonnage of cheese produced here. I know things about lemon sharks. I know there are such things as lemon sharks. I know exactly how many times a ten year old boy will go down a giant inflatable slide shaped like the Titanic sinking before he gets tired. Seventy-two. But what you mainly learn at a state fair is that just your one little patch of that state is filled with people who have very different ideas of what's important in life and what makes it worth living.
For instance, you learn that there are people who think that chainsaw sculptures are among the highest forms of art. You learn that there are people for whom the raising of prize-winning guinea fowl is as great an achievement as winning a case before the Supreme Court is to a lawyer or a Pulitzer Prize is to a writer. You learn that there are people who'd rather eat an elephant ear while strolling the midway than dine on a dessert made by the pastry chef at the most elegant restaurant in Paris. You learn that there are some people who know how to make a sausage roll and some people who just don't.
In short, you learn that there are a lot of people in the world who are very different from you and who aren't the least bit sorry about it.
Back to the Kindle.
Reading is a solitary joy. That's one of its main pleasures. It can take us out of the world. But before Kindle and e-books and the internet, you had to go out into the world first to get that book. You had to go to the fair in the form of the library or the bookstore, and for me going out to get books, going to the library and the bookstore, is part of the fun.
At the bookstore and the library you have to mix and mingle. You have to deal with and talk to and make allowances for all sorts and conditions. You have ask for help or graciously decline it when it's offered and you don't need it. You have to brush up against other people and squeeze out of the way so they can reach the book they want. You have to nod and smile when you and someone else reach for the same shelf at the same time. You have to face the fact that while you're reaching for something by Steinbeck they're reaching for the latest by Danielle Steele and that they are thinking about your choice what you're thinking about theirs---How can anybody read that crap?
In short, books, paper and glue books, by virtue of making us go out to the fair to get them help "correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy".
I still wouldn't mind owning a Kindle though. But you know what I would like a whole lot better?
A bookstore nearby that was open at three in the morning.
Related, because after all this you still need more to read:
Wren worries that the Kindle is going to turn books into ephemera.
Josh Marshall worries that the Kindle is going to make writers and readers slaves to Amazon.com.
And here's an obliquely relevant quote from Terry Pratchett:
Unseen University was used to eccentricity among the faculty. After all, humans derive their notions of what it means to be a normal human being from constant reference to the humans around them, and when those humans are other wizards, the spiral can only wiggle downward.